I have several confessions to make.
- I use this blog space as a place to work out ideas or issues that come up while I am writing more formal, academic work.
- I have some publishers that I really like a lot. I like their work, their ideals, and the ways their products. I am biased.
- I read books differently when thinking about them for academic settings.
Now that we have all that out of the way, I want to take on the task of writing about Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, published by First:Second Books. First:Second is my absolutely favorite graphic novel publisher … bar none. I could extoll the virtues of the paper they use, the printing process, the authors, and stories they find and cultivate. Just go here and see for yourself.
I was hugely excited to get a review copy of Delilah Dirk. I knew it was originally a web comic or was developed by Tony Cliff on the web or something like that – OK, so I don’t really know what it was because it started when I was writing my dissertation and when one is writing one’s dissertation there are things that one must not allow to distract one from one’s work. But, I digress.
Reading the book was a terrific thrill ride. The characters were funny, there was great banter, and no one had sex or even looked like they wanted to. It is truly a story about Delilah, a swash-buckling woman with a HUGE main of hair meets Selim, a Turkish lieutenant with even bigger morals, who is sent to interrogate her. Through some very unlikely but totally believable mishaps Delilah escapes and in the process saves Selim’s life. He, in turn, feels indebted to her and vows to accompany her. Think of the best “buddy movies” you’ve seen but instead of two guys, it is a half Greek woman with swords and a flying boat and a Turkish guy with a tea fetish.
The illustrations are just fabulous: Rich color married to exquisitely penned details, along with very smart use of panels and page layouts, which all work together to give rise to an intimate and exciting book. There is a lot of text, almost all of it dialogue with a few bits of back-story exposition, or narration to keep things flexible and interesting. There are gaps in the written text where the author allows the illustrations to provide the details.
Cliff creates some of the most beautiful open water and sea port views. His use of color and line, along with the heavy grade gloss paper is nothing short of mesmerizing.
I’m going to walk you through page 14, which shows Delilah and Selim’s “meet cute”. First look over the page yourself, and then take a look at my reading notes.
-Panel 1, 1/3 panel, row 1: mid-shot of Selim baring hot tea though a jail door. Note the jailer keys, the steam rising from the pots and the formal tray, and his raised foot that suggests movement.
-Panel 2, 2/3 panel, row 1: wide-angle, Delilah is quite small in comparison to Salim in the previous panel. Note the chain attached to the wall in the upper left corner and the corresponding one just out of sight-line in the upper right.
-Panel 3, row 2: smaller still but inline with panel 1. Close up of Salim.
-Panel 4, row 2: wide shot that shows both. Selim’s movement from the door to the table (which was not seen prior to this panel) is complete. Note the chair on the far right side of the panel.
-Panel 5, 1/2 panel, row 3, close up of Delilah. Note the large cuff on her writst.
-Panel 6, ½ panel, row 3, mid shot of Selim – he is not amused. Note that this is the first time the panels are in balance with each other.
-Panel 7, full size, she sits and pours while he watches, hunches and displeased. Note they are both in the same panel.
The technical fore-thought is amazing and is consistent throughout the book. But …. And there is a big but, the book has a major flaw that I cannot get around or ignore.
Although Delilah is the main character, and she defies many stereo-types of women, and the relationship between Selim and Delilah is unique in the equanimity it shows, there are problems with the ways women are portrayed throughout. In fact, you could change Delilah to a man, and there would be little change in the story. That is a problem.
It took me until the third time through the book, when I was getting ready to write about it, to see the problem. I often read with the Bechtel Test in the for-front on my mine when looking for representations in a book. The Bechdel test is a great way to read graphic novels for inclusion and representation that includes how and why visual elements are used and why.
In short, The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies highlights how women are portrayed in media. Just ask yourself these questions about the book or movie:
1. Are there 2 women who have names?
2. Do these women talk to each?
3. When they talk, is it about something other than men?
That’s it. Three questions … actually, two and a half since #2 and 3 are so tightly related. Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant fails.
Here are the reasons:
1. There are very few women that appear in the book (3, not counting Delilah).
2. Most of the women are nameless, covered in everything from chador to full-body bukas, even though the men are depicted in a range of clothing styles, and even shirtless in one scene.
3. Two of the three women who appear in the book are only there as objects of desire for Selim.
4. The one other woman who has a name in introduced by her husband, Semih, as “my Sofya” who bakes and takes care of others.
5. When Sofya finally does speak she talks to Selim as he leaves the village in search of Delilah, “Come back when you are ready to marry one or more of my daughters!”
Yes, that is the extent of the women who speak in the book.
It doesn’t just fail a little. It fails EPICALLY and I am mad.
I am mad because I wanted to be able to love this book. I wanted to use this book with preservice teachers, in-service teachers, and kids. But I can’t. I cannot recommend this book at all. I hate finding an almost terrific book more than finding horrid dreck. I believe that really horrid, simplistic, badly designed and written graphic novels have enough strong competition in the marketplace. At one point there was only Bone by Jeff Smith. Now, there are divisions and publishers that think, and think very carefully about books to keep truly terrible books in check.
But, Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, isn’t just simply bad. It is beautiful and fun and a really good story that has one element that I cannot abide. I hate this kind of conundrum because I know there are loads of good teachers and parents who are going to look this book over and think it is a good read for theirs sons or daughters. But, it isn’t. It shows readers that women are more often then not nameless property or servants to the community.